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Washington • President Barack Obama wielded his unilateral power Wednesday to set aside nearly 500,000 acres in New Mexico along the Mexican border as a national monument, and he promised more action to save other treasured landscapes.
"I've preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations. And I am not finished," Obama declared before signing a proclamation naming the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.
Wednesday's action marks Obama's 12th use of the Antiquities Act to protect lands officials say deserve special treatment, and supporters are lobbying for the president to use his authority more often before he leaves office. Several Utah areas including Cedar Mesa, the San Rafael Swell and Greater Canyonlands have been touted as possible candidates for monument designations.
During his State of the Union speech earlier this year, Obama said he wants to work with Congress but would act on his own if it doesn't move on this issue. Congress, this session, has passed only one wilderness designation.
The president renewed his promise Wednesday.
"I'm searching for more opportunities to preserve federal lands where communities are speaking up. Because wherever I see an opening to get things done for the American people, I'm going to take it," he said at the Interior Department headquarters after walking from the White House to sign the monument into law.
Obama said he remains willing to work with members of Congress, but "recently they haven't got the job done."
Calls for more monuments • Environmentalists say it's time Obama follows through on his vow because gridlock in Washington has stalled other preservation efforts.
"What I think the president is doing is upholding his pledge to take action," says Jeremy Garncarz, of The Wilderness Society. "I don't know if it's a trend, as much as I think he's doing what he said he would. I think [he's] hearing the calls of a lot of these communities across the country who want to protect places that are important to them."
While monuments often enjoy high approval ratings after they're set aside, they still cause heartburn for many in the West. Case in point: President Bill Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah two months before his 1996 re-election.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee over public lands, says Obama's action Wednesday is an insult to the legislative process and a top-down response to what should be a grass-roots effort. And Bishop worries this could be just the first in a string of monuments to come.
"That's the problem with the Antiquities Act," the congressman said. "What was originally used to preserve areas that were threatened is now abused to make political statements in areas that have no threats and are huge, massive amounts of land."
Las Cruces, N.M., community leaders have pushed for protection for the Organ Mountains region albeit with disagreements about its size for more than a decade, and legislation has stalled in Congress on designating the area as wilderness. The new monument parallels an effort by New Mexico's two Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, to preserve the area. Both were on stage Wednesday for the monument signing.
Contempt for Congress? • Not present was Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose own legislation to create a wilderness area for the Organ Mountains set aside about a tenth as much land as the new national monument. Pearce called Obama's move "misguided" and said it showed his contempt for Congress.
"With this land grab, the president is once again going out of his way to derail any attempt to form a consensus, and do what local people want," Pearce said in a statement.
Bishop had written Obama earlier this week asking the president to reconsider his decision to name the monument, arguing the move could hinder border-patrol efforts to secure the region because a monument halts non-emergency use of motorized vehicles outside of existing roadways.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, echoed that concern Wednesday, and added that Obama's "fondness for unilateral action" has created widespread doubt among Americans and that he can't be trusted to enforce laws, particularly in securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The president's announcement today intensifies those concerns, demonstrating a level of audacity that is remarkable even for this administration," Boehner said. "Once again, the president has chosen to bypass the legislative branch and, in this case, do so in a manner that adds yet another challenge in our ongoing efforts to secure our Southern border."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement Wednesday that the new monument wouldn't impact its efforts.
"This designation will in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority," said spokeswoman Jenny L. Burke. "CBP is committed to continuing to work closely with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain border security while ensuring the protection of the environment along the border."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also weighed in against the designation.
"The Antiquities Act's intent is to protect threatened areas not for presidential designations of new national monuments," Hatch said. "Instead of trying to appease his environmentalist allies and make further broad designations like the one made today, the president should actually try to work with Congress for a change so we can find a solution that everyone can agree on."
Nearly a year ago, a Bureau of Land Management official testified before Congress that he wasn't aware of any efforts to name the Organ Mountains a national monument.
Bishop, on Wednesday, chuckled when asked about that exchange.
"Whether it's honest or not, they still legally have to say it," Bishop said, noting that the Organ Mountains were among several places highlighted in a draft Interior memo in 2010 suggesting possible monument designations. "But if all these things are part of the [memo] ... and they're all coming to pass, I'm sorry, you have to question the veracity of interior when they make those statements."
The House recently passed legislation by Bishop that would subject national monument designations of more than 5,000 acres to an environmental review, though the Democrat-controlled Senate is not expected to take up the measure.